The Lens in My Eye (excerpted from By What Authority?)

I wondered: Is it really true that we Evangelicals never treat extrabiblical tradition as authoritative revelation? Is it really the case that all Evangelical belief is derived from the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Bible alone? Do we really speak forth only what Scripture speaks, keep silent where Scripture is silent, and never bind the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations?

I wondered. Especially since the living fossil of the Tradition of the Table of Contents still inexplicably swam like a coelacanth in the ocean of Evangelical faith precisely where we said tradition had gone extinct. What if there were other supposedly extinct extrabiblical coelacanths down there too?

To find out, I decided to try an experiment. I would look at Evangelical — not Catholic — belief and practice to see if there was any other evidence of tradition being treated like revelation. I would see if there were any other rock-bottom, non-negotiable, grade A, can’t-do-without-’em beliefs which, like the Table of Contents, were not attested (or very weakly attested) in the Bible, yet which we orthodox Evangelicals treated like revelation. If I found such things, and if they had an ancient pedigree, it seemed to me this would be very strong evidence that the apostolic paradosis not only was larger than the Bible alone, but that it had — somehow — been handed down to the present.

So I started taking a good long look at non-negotiable Evangelical beliefs as they were actually lived out in my church and churches like it. To my surprise, I found several such weakly attested non-negotiables.

The Sanctity of Human Life

Arguably the most pressing issue of our time is the question of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. While you are reading this book, several thousand preborn babies, ranging in age from first trimester to full term, are going to be safely, cleanly and legally suctioned, burnt, dismembered or decapitated by skilled professionals who collect large paychecks, walk their dogs, drink soda pop, and appear to the naked eye as ordinary human beings. As this evil occurs, a bewildered modern society, long ago cut adrift from its Christian roots, will not recoil in horror but will instead flop its hands passively in its lap, register a fuddled shrug of discomfort, and continue lacking the capacity to tell whether or not this is bad. Occasionally, when it is in the mood for righteous indignation, it will watch a Holocaust documentary on cable TV and shake its head at how the people of Germany could have permitted such things.

Meanwhile, the culture of death will not sleep. Rather, emboldened by our moral paralysis in the face of so obvious an evil, the purveyors of “choice” will ask ever more loudly “If we can do these things when the tree is green, what can we get away with when it is dry? If the life of the helpless infant is cheap when the economy is strong, why not the life of the disabled, aged and sick when medical costs skyrocket?”

So as acquiescence to abortion proceeds apace, thousands of other apparently ordinary people are working day and night — and with steadily growing success — to acquire the right for “qualified medical professionals” to kill innocent human beings whose lives are “unworthy of being lived.” They live for Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s dream of “Medicide Clinics,” where “patients” can be killed by means of “physician-assisted suicide.” To that end, initiatives and court cases proliferate across the country seeking to grant, not the “right to die” (we already have that) but the power of doctors (and eventually the state) to kill.

It seems obvious to me that the question of the sanctity of human life is a bedrock of Christian morals. If the protection of life from conception to natural death isn’t essential to Christian teaching, what is? Surely, here we ought to find a sharp dichotomy between the modern Church and the modern world. Right?

Wrong. The plain fact is, things don’t break down that way. On one side of the cultural divide are not only secularists, but, alas, many liberal Protestants and some lapsed Catholics who, with trembling devotion to the spirit of the age, dutifully parrot the rhetoric that those who defend human life are “anti-choice.”

On the other side of the divide are most Evangelicals, conservative members of the mainline Protestant churches, the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and conservative Jews. There’s rich irony here. Not terribly long ago, these people (who tend to get tarred as “anti-choice fundamentalists”) were attacked by secularists for defending Choice, not opposing it. That’s because not terribly long ago, all the Advanced People were Marxists, materialists and Skinnerian psychologists all agog for determinism and convinced that Choice (known then as Free Will) was sheer superstitious illusion.

These days, however, the fashion among Advanced People has changed, at least for the moment. Having finally discovered the reality of Choice, they have wrenched the cup of Free Will from the Church’s grasp and drunk it to dregs. Advanced People are now obsessed by Choice. Choice is the buzzword of our time. Let us have Choice, no matter what we choose. Let all our choices be right and none wrong. In the name of Choice, let us destroy the weak one in order to save her. And let any who oppose this Truly Enlightened agenda be forever cast out as throwbacks to the Dark Ages.

Now the glorious fact is, there is a germ of truth in all this shrill railing against orthodox Christian belief. The champions of the unborn, the sick and the aging do have allies in the Christian church, not only in the present but in the past. For not only the “Dark Ages” but absolutely all of Christianity for twenty centuries stands staunchly behind these defenseless ones against the extremely recent theologically liberal apologists for the culture of death. Indeed, so recent is the minting of this timeless “right” that not even theological liberals were willing to call abortion anything other than a grave sin until the past few decades. That is why we can scarcely find a shred of Christian theology written in favor of abortion and euthanasia before the 1960s and 70s. From the first century to the present, a shoreless ocean of testimony from every sector of the Church decries this terrible crime against God and humanity. And we Evangelicals, with very few exceptions, are of one voice with twenty centuries of Christian preaching concerning this most elementary of Christian moral truths.

I am proud to number myself among the ranks of prolife Christians and will never waver from this commitment. But as I began to argue my position with liberal Christians who supported the so-called “right to choose,” I did begin to waver in something: my conviction that the irrefutable basis for our prolife conviction as Evangelicals is Scripture alone.

I know the verses that are quoted. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13), “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1:5) and so forth. I certainly agree that these verses bear oblique witness to a prolife position. Indeed, I emphatically agree that the prolife position is an obvious fact of Christian teaching throughout out all ages. But in arguing the matter with other Christians who read the same Bible I do, I began to realize that I could not make opposition to abortion and devotion to the sanctity of preborn life an intrinsic, absolutely essential, utterly non-negotiable part of the Christian faith on the basis of Scripture alone. For the fact is, a modern apologist for the culture of death can and does argue that Scripture alone, apart from tradition, is as ambiguous about abortion as it is about the question of just war vs. pacifism — and therefore abortion is a matter of “Christian liberty.”

Consider: neither testament gives a clear understanding of the status of unborn life. Is the fetus a human person possessing the same dignity as a child after birth? Is the conceptus? Is the act of directly causing the death of such a one an act of murder or some lesser offense? Is it an offense at all? No direct answer is ever attempted to these questions anywhere in Scripture.

Worse, the indirect ways in which Scripture addresses these issues are very oblique and open to multiple interpretations — apart from tradition. Thus Exodus 21:22 reads:

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Far more questions are raised by this passage than are answered — if we are left to interpret it without reference to Jewish and Christian tradition as certain prochoice Christians urge us to do. For instance, the Hebrew word which is here translated “gives birth prematurely” is, in fact, much more flexible than this. It means “departs” and can be read as “gives birth prematurely” or as “spontaneously aborts.” So does the caveat about “serious injury” apply to the woman or to the miscarried child? Does the Law demand wound for wound for the mother’s injury or the unborn’s? If the mother is not seriously injured but the child dies, is this what is meant by “no serious injury”? The text does not say. Nor does the rest of Scripture help us.

Similarly, the New Testament does not tell us how to understand another difficult Old Testament passage: Numbers 5:20-27. This strange text prescribes an ordeal for suspected adulteresses, in which the suspected woman is placed under oath and made to drink “bitter water that brings a curse.” The purpose of the ordeal was to call down a divine curse on the adulteress that caused her “abdomen to swell and her thigh to waste away” or as the footnotes to the NIV put it, to make her “be barren and have a miscarrying womb.”

If we do not have any larger tradition for understanding such a text — if we “let Scripture interpret Scripture” we Evangelicals say — it seems that some induced miscarriages (i.e. those of adulteresses) ought to be countenanced by the people of God. In short, Scripture does not automatically give one the impression that the Bible lends itself to an irrefutable case for the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death.

At this, we Evangelicals may attempt to create a larger interpretive context by “letting Scripture interpret Scripture” again. We might raise the counter-example of John the Baptist, moved by the Spirit in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrived (Lk 1:41). Is not this a strong indication that even unborn children are persons responsive to the Spirit of God? Is it not a pretty darn good hint that unborn babies are people too?

Of course it is. That is, it’s a “strong indication” — a hint, a sign, a good possibility. It is not incontrovertible proof that all children are similarly graced with supernatural gifts, including the supernatural gift of personhood, when they are as yet unformed in their mother’s womb. Thus, I know Christians who have actually taken this text as license for first-trimester abortions since babies cannot be felt to kick in utero before the second trimester. Such Christians are living proof that the bare text of Scripture, apart from the interpretive tradition of Christendom, says nothing clear and definite about abortion or human development anywhere. Instead it gives only signs, clues and hints which individual Christians, forsaking that tradition, can and do interpret in ways that directly contradict one another.

“OK,” the Evangelical says. “Maybe John the Baptist isn’t a biblical prolife proof, but what about our Lord himself? Surely the personhood of the Second Person of the Trinity at his conception lends his dignity to all human beings from conception onwards so that ‘whatever we do to the least of these’ (Mt 25:40) applies supremely here.”

Now I happen to agree with this argument. But I have spoken with other well-meaning, Bible-believing Christians (most of them strongly pro-life) who don’t. They see no such extension of Christ’s dignity to us by the mere fact that Christ was born a human being. They note that Christ is speaking of the “least of these brothers of mine” and argue that we become his brothers and God’s children, not by being born but by being born again. They fear that to protect the unborn child on this basis is to ultimately mislead people into thinking we are holy when we are merely human.

Of course, I have counter-arguments to all this and they, of course, have counter-counter-arguments till between us you can’t count the counters. But this is hardly evidence of the undeniable clarity of Scripture alone on this crucial point of Christian ethics.

“Well then,” someone proposes, “maybe Scripture says so little because abortion was unheard of at the time? After all, you don’t pass laws against speeding if no one has yet invented the automobile.”

The difficulty with this theory is that it simply isn’t true. Abortion predates Christianity by centuries and it flourished in pagan culture then as it flourishes in our quasi-pagan culture now. That is why the Didache, a manual of Christian instruction composed around 80 AD, during the lifetime of the Apostle John and the gospel writers, commands: “You shall not procure an abortion. You shall not destroy a newborn child.” Nor was the Didache alone in this. The subsequent writings of the post-apostolic period are simply unanimous when it comes to the Christian teaching on this subject. The epistle of Barnabas, the letter to Diognetus, the writings of Athenagoras, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome,and a vast army of the Fathers, indeed every last Christian theologian who addresses this question until late in this century says exactly the same thing: abortion is a grave evil and the taking of human life.

Yet the odd thing is this: the old writers, the Fathers of the Church closest in time to the apostles, speak of their doctrine both in this area and in many others as definitely decided by the mind of the Church and the tradition of the apostles. For them, abortion is contrary, not so much to the Bible, as to the Holy Faith they received from their predecessors. Thus Basil the Great writes (c. 374): “A woman who has deliberately destroyed a fetus must pay the penalty for murder” and “Those also who give drugs causing abortions are murderers themselves, as well as those who receive the poison which kills the fetus.” Yet, for Basil, as for the rest of the Fathers, this teaching like many others has been preserved, not only in Scripture, but “in the Church.” As he himself says:

Of the dogmas and kerygmas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals.”

In short, the Faith of which the Fathers speak (including its prolife ethic) is revealed, not merely by Scripture alone, but by Scripture rightly understood (and only rightly understood) in the context of a larger tradition which is just as much from God as the Scripture it interprets.

And no one, least of all we Evangelicals, questioned this prolife teaching until this century. An unqualified reverence for human life from conception onward was universally a part of the essence of Christian belief and practice for all of Christian history until very recently. Indeed, the overwhelming number of Evangelicals quite faithfully followed this tradition without it even occurring to us to question it. Why was this, if we were truly deriving our beliefs from the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Bible alone, speaking forth only what Scripture spoke, keeping silent where Scripture was silent, and not binding the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations?

As with the Tradition of the Table of Contents, the obvious answer seemed to be that I was looking at another facet of extrabiblical paradosis which is so profoundly part of our bones that we Evangelicals never thought to distinguish it from (much less oppose it to) the Scriptures themselves. Indeed, as I looked at it, I began to realize that the total prolife paradosis was Scripture and tradition together; distinct, yet an organic unity like the head and the heart, the right hand and the left. The Scripture gave light, but a very scattered light on this most crucial of issues. The tradition acted like a lens bringing that dancing light into focus. Tradition without Scripture was a darkened lens without a light; but likewise, Scripture without tradition was, on this vital issue, ablurry, unfocusedlight without a lens.

In realizing this, I realized Evangelicals were no different than Catholics on this score. Like all Christians before us till the time of the Didache, we were not treating this tradition — the Tradition of Prolife Interpretation — as a fallible human reading of Scripture. Rather we treated it as absolutely authoritative and therefore as revealed.

Polygamy

The next test of the theory that we Evangelicals derive our essential beliefs from the Bible alone was sparked by something I remembered about two of the greatest figures of Protestant history.

In college I had run across the peculiar fact that John Milton, the great Puritan poet and author of Paradise Lost, thought that monogamy was unbiblical and had written against it (though he did not actually act on his principles). Milton seems have had pious reasons for his views: he wished to preserve the biblical patriarchs against what he saw as a threat against their holiness. Milton thought that if polygamy were forbidden, then he “should be forced to exclude from the sanctuary of God as spurious, the holy offspring which sprang from them, yea, the whole of the sons of Israel, for whom the sanctuary itself was made.” So he wrote, “Either therefore polygamy is a true marriage, or all children born in that state are spurious; which would include the whole race of Jacob, the twelve holy tribes chosen by God.”

Of course, Milton is remembered primarily as a poet, not a theologian, though he knew his Bible extremely well. Since his views on polygamy were thoroughly at odds with the mainstream Christian thinking, I chalked up my discovery as a historical curiosity of the English Reformation. But to my surprise, years later I discovered that another Bible-believing figure in Protestant history held similar views, and he is not so easily dismissed. His name was Martin Luther.

Luther, it seems, was confronted with the question of whether or not the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, an important official of his day, might enter into a bigamous marriage. When pressed to render a judgment in the matter, Luther (together with Philip Melancthon) concluded that monogamy was no necessary part of the Christian revelation and that polygamy was a legitimate practice for a Christian. In his words:

I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in such a matter.

Like Milton, Luther found that the universal Christian condemnation of polygamy was not really provable from Scripture alone. For him, it was therefore a matter of Christian liberty.

Now it may be objected that polygamy is hardly the live issue abortion is today. After all, who but a few Mormons and some guests on tabloid TV have advocated a return to it in our society? Indeed, Luther and Milton are extraordinary exceptions to the otherwise universal Christian condemnation of polygamy — a condemnation heartily shared by Dr. James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur and all other committed, Bible-only Evangelicals.

And yet… where does this condemnation come from? For as Milton and Luther pointed out, it is scarcely supported by Scripture.

“Nonsense,” said my Evangelical friends. “Jesus forbade polygamy by his words, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery'” (Mk 10:11-12).

Yet this only proves my point. For such an understanding of our Lord’s words depends entirely on the way in which the Church habitually reads these words, not on the bare text alone. That is, it depends on a Tradition of Monogamy andnot merely on the text. For if we read the text strictly, as Milton and Luther did, we find it only speaks of divorce and remarriage. It nowhere forbids men multiple wives if they retain previous ones. So, in this area also, we Evangelicals derive our belief from Scripture as it has always been understood by the mind of the Church, both Protestant and Catholic.

Now it may be objected that I am adding a needless interpreter. After all, Paul makes abundantly clear that remarriage (not to mention multiple marriage) is forbidden while one’s spouse is still living (Rm 7:3; 1 Cor 7:39). And this is true enough — for women. But what of men hailing from either a first century pagan or Jewish culture, both of which permitted male polygamy?

If we follow the great Evangelical maxim and “let Scripture interpret Scripture,” we are given biblical figures such as Jacob, David and Solomon, all of whom are spoken of with great approval by God himself and none of whom are informed that male polygamy per se is a sin.

If we counter by saying “Jacob’s two wives were a nuisance to him (and he to them),” I reply, Jacob’s many sons were a nuisance too, but Scripture still says “be fruitful and multiply.” If we retort, “Solomon’s many pagan wives turned his heart after other gods” I reply that the problem, according to Scripture, was that they were pagan, not that they were many (1 Kings 11:2-6). If we cite the command in Deuteronomy 17:17 warning against having many wives, we must also note that the same passage (v. 16) warns against having many horses. Does the Law therefore forbid a man to have more than one horse as well? Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, it would appear this is not the intent of the Deuteronomic warning since David is specifically told by God that his many wives were given into his arms by the Lord himself and were, apparently, part of the many blessings God heaped on him (2 Sm 12:8). Rather, the passage in Deuteronomy is quite clearly a warning against greed, not against polygamy.

Now let us be clear. I am not Joseph Smith or Hugh Hefner. I do not advocate a return to male polygamy or the keeping of harems. Rather, my point is that Christianity has never advocated polygamy — has opposed it always and everywhere as a thing essentially contrary to the will of God despite what the Old Testament appears to say. And we Evangelicals stand unreservedly on this fact and regard male polygamy not merely as chauvinistic and impractical, but as obvious sin.

Yet, we have little cause to do so on the basis of Scripture alone, as Luther and Milton cogently argue.

To be sure, letting Scripture interpret Scripture would not make taking another person’s wife or husband any less a sin. That remains strictly forbidden in both Old and New Testament documents (Prov 7:6-27; Mk 10: 11-12). So is abandoning the wife of one’s youth (Mal 2:15). So is marrying outside the Faith (Ez 9:1; 1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14). So is polygamy by a woman (1 Cor 7:39). So too is the sin of divorcing one’s wife (and thereby leaving her, in first century culture, with but one choice in order to avoid starvation or prostitution: remarriage and therefore adultery.) (Mt. 5:32). But, with one minor exception, nowhere is a man forbidden to take more than one wife at a time.

That exception is Paul’s command to overseers (and only overseers) to be the husband of “but one wife” (1 Tm 3:2; Ti 1:6). Yet the very fact Paul gives this command only to overseers suggests (if we have no tradition outside Scripture) that other Christian men could have more than one if they liked. After all, if monogamy were as crucial as we believe it to be and if Paul were preaching in a culture which still embraced polygamy, one would expect it to be a fairly constant theme in his moral teaching. Yet in all his other discussions of “practical Christian living” in every book from Romans to 2 Thessalonians, Paul never mentions a demand for monogamy on the part of the rank and file believer, even in strongly polygamous pagan cultures like Corinth. On the contrary, only in his instructions to overseers whose special responsibilities demand simplicity of life, does Paul mention this demand for monogamy. Small wonder Milton and Luther came to view it as optional.

And yet we Evangelicals (and Lutherans and Puritans) ignore these champions of purely biblical revelation and treat monogamy, not as a matter of liberty very weakly attested by Scripture, but as a self-evident aspect of the Faith incumbent on every Christian. Further, we do so, not on the basis of polygamy’s impracticality or incongeniality to feminism, but on the firm conviction that God calls it a sin as well. And the church for its entire history holds this view, even when polygamy was perfectly acceptable to the larger culture, both Jewish and pagan.

Which brought me to a puzzle.

One the one hand, I could see how American Christians at the end of the twentieth century could certainly be culturally conditioned to regard polygamy as dead. Common sense, peer pressure and feminism would be a strong deterrent to any lingering vestiges of old world chauvinism left in the American male psyche.

But how does this modern culture-shift account for the fact that polygamy was just as dead in fourth century Christian teaching, when feminism was not a particularly commanding presence in the media and ordinary culture was enthusiastic about male polygamy? Basil the Great had never seen a copy of Ms. Magazine and was surrounded by a fourth century culture uninfluenced by the monogamous writings of Focus on the Family. Nonetheless Basil wrote of multiple marriage that “such a state is no longer called marriage but polygamy or, indeed, a moderate fornication.” Those engaged in it were ordered by him to be excommunicated for up to five years and to be restored to fellowship “only after they have shown some fruitful repentance.” This opposition to polygamy, Basil makes clear, is not something he invented any more than Dr. Dobson did. On the contrary, Basil says that these teachings are “accepted as our usual practice, not from the canons but in conformity with our predecessors.” In other words, not from the apostolic writings but from the tradition in force in the whole Church from its remotest antiquity.

But surely, I thought, this is very odd. I had been taught that the embrace of such extrabiblical tradition always represented a move toward paganism, not away from it. It was my understanding that the early Church had departed from the high and hard truth of the Bible after the death of the apostles and, seeking human approval, had allowed all sorts of pagan notions to creep in (like purgatory, devotion to Mary, superstitions about relics and sacraments). Why then, with all this “pagan creep” going on, would the Church staunchly oppose both paganism and Judaism in the matter of polygamy when the Bible was very ambiguous on the matter? Surely if one was going to accommodate paganism it would be here, wouldn’t it?

Yet the facts were clear: even though male polygamy was lawful in both pagan culture and in the Old Testament, even though polygamy continues to this day among Jews in Muslim countries, even though Jesus and the apostles never speak against it in the Scriptures explicitly, still the post-apostolic Church, claiming apostolic tradition as its authority, speaks against it as plainly contrary to the teaching of Christ and does everything it can to root out the practice as quickly as possible. Indeed, the early Church’s depth of conviction is so strong that it reverberates throughout the Protestant world for four centuries after the break with Catholicism. Moreover, it remains so strong down to the present that it never occurred to us Evangelicals (or anyone else) to question whether there is any other way of reading our Bibles. Everybody (even an unbeliever) knows that the ban on polygamy is an essential, non-negotiable part of Christian teaching and always has been.

And yet, I asked myself, if this is not treating tradition like revelation, what is it?

The Trinity

The examples given above, particularly abortion, involve contested moral practices from which even some Evangelicals and many other Protestants now dissent from the voice of 20 centuries of Christian teaching and practice. Thus, a convinced multiculturalist Christian might say to some missionary in Muslim lands, “Who are you to impose your values and ask the Muslim to renounce his customary acceptance of polygamy? Bring him the gospel, to be sure. But don’t force your Western interpretation of Scripture on him and cause him to stumble.” Similarly, there are brother and sister Protestants of the liberal variety who are willing to say “Abortion is not necessarily a sin by biblical lights. We will simply have to treat it as a matter of Christian liberty, like we did with artificial contraception in this century. But on the really biblical essentials of Christianity, I’m solid. That is why I don’t go in for either Catholic traditions or for right-wing Evangelical ones lifted from Catholicism. I’m just a straightforward trinitarian Christian without a right-wing political ax to grind.”

To this I raise two objections.

First, playing this sort of “Simon says” game with Scripture, looking only for direct and explicit proof texts and flatly ignoring unanimous tradition where it also speaks as revelation for 20 centuries, leads to a lot more than loose attitudes toward sex. Abortion and polygamy are not the only issues ambiguously addressed by Scripture. A “Simon says” hermeneutic also transforms necrophilia, tissue harvesting of anesthetized condemned prisoners, genetic experimentation, slaughter of civilian populations in war and many other outrages into matters of personal taste, cultural whim or political expedience. When this happens, the Christian’s own “Simon says” theology prevents him from working against the power of the state or the culture to prevent these evils.

However, even this is small beer from an eternal perspective . The question “How shall we then live?” is simpler than the ultimate problem posed by Christ himself: “Who do you say I am?” Even if we assume the validity of the canon of Scripture, a strictly Bible-only form of revelation cannot get us to our orthodox Evangelical answer to Christ’s question. Indeed we cannot remain Evangelical in any meaningful sense at all without treating tradition as though it also preserves revelation. For as I discovered, “straightforward” trinitarianism, which is an absolutely essential hallmark of Evangelicalism, is just as dependent on tradition’s reading of Scripture as the ethical strictures we have examined.

What could be more central to Evangelical belief than the deity of Christ? This was the very issue that had spurred me to battle with modernism. It is the great thundering truth proclaimed by every good preacher of the gospel. If that is not essential Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. Yet as I began to read Scripture and look at church history, I began to realize there are more ways in heaven and earth of attacking the deity of Christ than modernism has dreamt of in its philosophy. There are ways that need never pursue any such crudities as declaring our Lord the product of a rape or asserting that he was eaten by wild dogs. Indeed, there are ways of denying the deity of Christ which can easily slip in under the Evangelical radar screen, ways which reverence him as a supernatural being and call loudly for trust in Scripture as the one and only source of revelation, yet which firmly consign Christ to the status of mere creature just as surely as the most ardent skeptic.

Most famous among these ways is a third century movement known as Arianism.

Arians were principally concerned to preserve the Oneness of God from pagan polytheism. They argued cogently from Scripture. They were well-trained, Greek-speaking theologians who could read Scripture in the original tongues. The only problem was that they had the brighter, simpler idea that Jesus was not truly God but only a sort of godlet or superior created being.

In defense of this idea, the Arians rejected tradition and pointed to texts like “my Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28) and “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone” (Mk 10:18). They also pointed to the form of the Trinity as found in Paul: “God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit.” They could come up with plausible explanations for terms and expressions which we Evangelicals thought could only point to Christ’s divinity. For example, Arians said the statement, “I and my Father are one” (Jn 10:30) refers to oneness of purpose, not oneness of being. They pointed out that Scripture refers to supernatural created beings as “sons of God” (Job 38:7) without intending they are one in being with the Father. They observed that even mere humans were called “gods” (Ps 82:6; Jn 10:34-36), without the implication that they are God. Therefore they inferred that the Son, supernatural though he may be (as angels, principalities and powers are supernatural), is neither co-eternal with the Father nor one in being with him.

Now many Christians today regard all this wrangling over technical philosophical phrases like “co-eternal” and “of one being” as just so much theological technobabble. We lament that the early Church got so hung up on “cold Christs and tangled Trinities.” We shake our heads and say we need to forget all that head-knowledge and just magnify the Lord Jesus and worship him. We say well-intended things like, “Let’s just get back to basics and return to the simple biblical message that Christ died for us to take away our sins and give us a share in the life of God by the Holy Spirit.”

But this simple biblical message is precisely what Arianism denies — and it uses the Bible to do it! To deny that Christ is one in being with the Father is to deny that he can ever be magnified and worshipped because it is to deny that he is God. To deny that he is God is to deny that his death meant any more for a sinful humanity than the death of any other creature. Likewise it is to deny that he can ever give us a share in the life of God. Even the Son, however glorious, cannot give what he does not have.

How would we Evangelicals argue against Arianism using Scripture alone? We’d say that John speaks of the Son as “only begotten” and says of him that he “was God” and was “with God in the beginning” (Jn 1:1-2, 18; 3:16). We would reply that, although the term “Trinity” is not in Scripture, nonetheless the concept of Trinity is there.

But a good Arian would be quick to point out that God plainly says “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Heb 1:5) which implies that there was a time before the Son was begotten. Thus, though the Son was with God in the beginning of his creative work, says the Arian, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t created himself.

In other words, the Arian can argue that there was a time when the Son was not. But there was never a time when the Father was not. He is without beginning. Therefore, according to the Arian, the Son is not God in the same sense as the Father and does not share his eternal, beginningless essence. This amounts to a denial of the deity of Christ since a God with a beginning is not the God of Israel. Great and glorious and supernatural as he may be compared to the rest of creation (and Paul implies he is a creature when he calls him the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15) doesn’t he?), nonetheless he is only a creature, says the Arian.

But that would not be the end of it. For the Arian would likewise preserve the oneness of God by insisting that the Holy Spirit is not a person, much less the Third Person of the Trinity. Can an Evangelical appealing to Scripture alone definitively disprove this claim?

Maybe. But then… maybe not.

To be sure, the Spirit is spoken of as a Paraclete (Jn 14:16) (a defense lawyer) and is referred to as engaging in personal acts such as convicting of sin (Jn 16:8), bearing witness (Jn 15:26), giving joy (Lk 10:21), enabling saints to perform miracles and prophecy (1 Cor 12) and so on. Similarly, we Evangelicals would argue that he can be blasphemed, grieved, insulted and lied to (Mk 3:29; Eph 4:30; Acts 5:3).

But on the other hand, says the Arian, the New Testament word for “Spirit” is neuter and the Greek refers to the Spirit as “it.” Likewise, it speaks of the Spirit in non-personal images as well. The Spirit is a fire (Acts 2:3), a dove (Mt 3:16), a rushing wind (Acts 2:2), a fountain of water (Jn 7:37-39). The Spirit “fills” people like an impersonal wine poured into a bottle (Acts 2:4). Come to think of it, says the Arian, Scripture often speaks of abstract things in personal terms. Thus it portrays sin “crouching at the door” like a bandit (Gn 4:7), earth crying out at the blood of Abel (Gn 4:10), wisdom as a woman working at God’s side (Prov 8), and the law of sin waging war against the law of Paul’s mind like a soldier (Rm 7:23). So, says the Arian, the Scriptures which appear to portray the Spirit as a person are in fact personalized images of the power of God, not a revelation of a Third Person in the Godhead.

Evangelicals may well counter that Paul specifically declares that the Lord is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). But the Arian has a ready answer. Granted, he says, the Spirit is spoken of as “the Lord” now and then. But there are also many passages in which creatures speak and are addressed as though they are God himself (Gn 18). So Paul’s language need not necessarily mean that the Spirit is literally God Almighty.

Very well then, is my point “Be Arian”? No. My point is that an Evangelical, relying on Scripture alone and “never binding the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations,” is in a poor position to say definitively, “Don’t be Arian.” Arianism has just the sort of scriptural ammo which today leads, not so much to a triumph of Arianism as to a stalemate between Arianism and orthodoxy in the Evangelical arena.

For Arian “simplicity” is not dead. Indeed, that enormous marketplace of ideas called the Internet teems with Arians from various sects who have a field day as simply an “alternative Christian theology” and we Bible-only Evangelicals are remarkably weak in argument with them. (The summary of Arian/orthodox debate given above is culled from long experience of watching such arguments on the Internet.) I cannot count the times I have seen orthodox Evangelicals finally retreat from the issue with a fuddled shrug and some muttered variation on, “Well, I just feel you’re wrong.” Yet this is tantamount to telling the confused non-Christian that Christianity is (1) whatever we feel like or (2) an irrational belief in the impossible.

How then, I wondered, can we even be sure of this foundation stone of the Faith (much less communicate it to others) if the ambiguity of Scripture made it too a “matter of liberty” according to our own Evangelical criteria?

I discovered the answer as I listened to one of those radio call-in shows where theologians tackle various questions about the Bible. The host of this show was a solid Evangelical with a high regard for the Bible who was always very careful to speak of Scripture alone as the bottom line of revelation. Yet the odd thing was, when a particularly articulate exponent of anti-trinitarianism called and pointed out the typical Arian readings of various Scriptures, the host had one final bottom line below the bottom line. After citing various counter-Scriptures (and receiving more plausible Arian readings by the caller until yet another stalemate seemed imminent), the host finally said, in essence, “Your interpretation is simply not what historic Christianity has ever understood its own Bible to mean.” He then asked the Arian caller if he was really prepared to insist that twenty centuries of Christians (including people who had heard the apostles with their own ears and who clearly regarded Jesus as God) had been utterly wrong about the central fact of their faith while he alone was right?

This made sense. It seemed plain to me that it was idle for the Arian caller to wrench Scripture away from twenty centuries of ordinary Christian interpretation of so crucial a matter and declare the entire Church, from those who knew the apostles down to the present, incapable of understanding what it meant in its own Scriptures concerning so fundamental an issue. To deny that the deity of Christ was part of the apostolic preaching is to say that the apostles managed to leave a wildly blasphemous impression upon their fledgling churches when really they had no such intention. It is to assert that everywhere — north, south, east and west, among Jews and Gentiles, across a bewildering smorgasbord of ethnicities, cultures, languages and peoples from Palestine to Asia to Greece to Rome to Spain to Africa to India to Gaul — the apostles managed to fix in the minds of every one of their churches something they had not meant: That the mere creature called Jesus is “our God,” “the True God existing before the ages” who was “born in the form of a man.” Quite a little mixup indeed! If only the Twelve hadn’t mumbled so, their disciples would not have gotten so confused about such an elementary thing as the distinction between Creator and creature!

Is it even remotely likely that the entire early Church misunderstood the apostles that badly? Is it not obvious that the churches preserved the plain apostolic meaning of the Scriptures by carrying in their bosom not only the text of Scripture, but the clear memory of the way in these texts were intended by the apostles? Was it not obvious that this living memory was, in fact, essential to correctly reading the Scripture and that without it, the Arian was taking the Bible itself out of context?

But in seeing this, but I couldn’t help seeing something else: my Evangelical radio show host (and my Evangelical friends and I) was saying that a Tradition of Trinitarian Interpretation living in the Church was just as essential and revealed as the Scripture being interpreted. When we spoke of the absolute union of the Father and the Son, of the Holy Spirit as God Almighty and the Creator of all things, we Evangelicals were in fact resting serenely, not on the Bible alone, but on the interpretative tradition of the Church just as we rested serenely on its Tradition of the Table of Contents, its Tradition of the Sanctity of Human Life, and its Tradition of Monogamy.

This again meant that whatever we Evangelicals said about tradition being “useful but not essential” to Christian revelation, we behaved exactly as though we believed trinitarian tradition — a tradition both in union with and yet distinct from the Scripture it interprets — is the other leg upon which the revelation of Christ’s deity and the Spirit’s Lordship stands. Once again we were treating Scripture and tradition, neither as competitors nor as identical, but as light and lens.

Yeah, But…

None of my toying with tradition-as-revelation sat well with my Evangelical friends. They were naturally nervous about just where my thoughts were taking me. They felt, as I had once felt, that such talk could only lead to embracing the traditions of men and adding them to the word of God. They said that to talk of extrabiblical revelation was to talk like a Mormon. How, they asked, was I supposed to avoid gluing a bunch of new stuff on to my Christian faith like a latter-day Joseph Smith once I accepted the principle of extrabiblical revelation? Wasn’t this what I had set out to oppose in modernism? If I wanted extrabiblical revelation, why not just start adding some more books to the Bible right now? But if I wasn’t willing to do that (and I wasn’t) then why not acknowledge what all true Christians acknowledged: that public revelation was complete and closed with the death of the apostles?

This jarred me. But not for the reasons my friends supposed. Because where they saw a clincher of an argument against tradition as revelation, I was beginning at last to see how the Catholic Church might be on to something with all this extrabiblical tradition stuff.

For my friends were perfectly right. It is a belief absolutely essential to all orthodox Christians that, as the Second Vatican Council says, “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But this immediately raised two questions:

First, why did the Catholic Church regard this teaching as dogma when Mormonism explicitly denied it? If Rome’s assertion that Sacred Tradition is revelatory was identical to the Mormon claim of continuing revelation, why then did Rome diametrically oppose Salt Lake City by insisting public revelation could not be added to?

Secondly, where did we Evangelicals and Rome get this rock-bottom, non-negotiable belief that public revelation was closed? As I reflected on it, I realized the roots of this belief are simply nowhere to be found in Scripture. There is not one single syllable anywhere in the New Testament which says that public revelation will close when the apostles shuffle off their mortal coil. To be sure, such a view of revelation extends back very far. But it is not recorded in the New Testament documents.

Therefore, if we hold (as my friends and I did) that this teaching is rock-bottom apostolic revelation honored by all true Christians, we are, paradoxically enough, saying that the only way this could have come to us from the apostles was via extrabiblical tradition. Thus, the Tradition of the Closure of Public Revelation is yet another facet of the unwritten paradosis which everybody — Catholic and Protestant — treats as equal in weight to the truth contained in Scripture. Everyone regards this tradition as absolutely crucial for framing the way in which we do and do not read Scripture. So once again, our actual practice as Evangelicals seemed to be better accounted for by Catholic theology than by our own.

It was then a plain mistake to think we Evangelicals spoke forth only what Scripture spoke, kept silent where Scripture was silent, and never bound the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations. On the contrary, we lived (and had to live) by tradition almost as deeply as any Catholic. For us, as for Rome, tradition was the lens that focused the light of Scripture. For us, as for Rome, that tradition was not a pair of “useful but not necessary” disposable glasses; it was the lens of our living eye and the heart of vision. It was so much a part of us that we were oblivious to it. I realized we Evangelicals had been so focused on the light of Scripture that we had forgotten the lens through which we looked.

But now I was aware of the lens of tradition. I was aware that it is both in union with and distinct from Scripture. I was aware that apart from it essential elements of Christian faith and ethics remain permanently in the twilight zone. I was aware that such tradition is of great antiquity and strongly points back to the apostles themselves. And I was aware that this lens of tradition was in every eye, both Protestant and Catholic.

So, being aware of all this, I returned to the question which had so perplexed me when the problem of the canon had first presented itself. “Why,” I had demanded, “is the canon of Scripture not a human tradition?”

In reply, Scripture had shown me a continuous thread of reliance on extrabiblical tradition on the part of both Old and New Testament figures led by Jesus Christ himself. It had shown me plainly worded instructions from Paul demanding that I hold to tradition whether it was written or unwritten. The writings of the seminal figures in the early Church following the apostles revealed a Church which had followed this command. They frankly declared of their doctrine that (in Basil the Great’s words) “some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles.”

Finally, to crown it all, I had discovered that Evangelicals were, in fact, participating in this tradition in at least five crucial areas of our ethics and theology without our even realizing it. And as I saw all this, I found for the first time that a new question was beginning to form in my mind:

What if the canon of Scripture is part of the Tradition, not of men, but of God?

(For more on this, go here to order By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Sacred Tradition.)

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